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essays about quilts

Quilts & waggas: The Running Stitch Collection

A highlight in the collection of the National Wool Museum

by Jo Foley
Collection Manager National Wool Museum, Geelong, Victoria.

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View of The Running Stitch Collection on display at the National Wool Museum

Building the Collection
The Running Stitch Collection at the National Wool Museum, Geelong is able to trace the history of the domestic quilt tradition in Australia from the early 1900's to the present day. The items in the collection were compiled during the 1980's by four textile artists from Melbourne, calling themselves "The Running Stitch Group". The founding members were Barbara Macey, Lois Densham, Jan Ross-Manley and Susan Denton, with Deborah Brearley joining in 1995. They all shared a collective passion for their medium and for our Australian quilt heritage.

The group formed in 1983 with two objectives. Firstly, to find avenues to express their feeling about the importance of textiles to a wider audience, beyond the limitations of formalised gallery situations. Secondly, to obtain greater control over the exhibition of their work. Exhibiting as a group rather than as individuals, given the large scale and time consuming nature of their work, meant that they could exhibit more often.

The items in the collection were initially obtained from a range of sources by the Running Stitch group members over an eighteen-month period. This preceded an exhibition in 1985, "Wool Quilts: Old and New" at 'Wool House", the offices of the Australian Wool Corporation in Melbourne. The exhibition included contemporary quilts made by members of the group, traditional American wool quilts and a number of old Australian quilts and "waggas".

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Detail. Heavyweight 'travelling rug' made from a green crushed velvet coat.
NQR ID.147NWM

The response to this exhibition was very encouraging as people began to realise the attraction and value of our domestic textile heritage. Prompted by the display, some visitors left stories about their own textile pieces. Some decided to give the group examples of the quilts and "waggas" used in their own families.

However, not everyone wanted to identify who had made them or where they were from. Sometimes recalling leaner times can be a sensitive issue. It is for this reason that some items in the collection will always remain "unknown". It is left to us to imagine their makers and the times in which they were made.

The interest in the collection built momentum and culminated in a touring show of the same name, which was curated by the Ararat Art Gallery. The exhibition went to many of Victoria's regional museums and galleries during 1986 and 1987 and several quilts were given to the group when they were on display in "The Great Exhibition of Victoria" at the Museum of Victoria.

In 1989, the group members decided to give their collection to The National Wool Museum. They have become valued items in the Museum's collection, contributing to the Museum's ability to tell stories about wool through a demonstration of methods where wool has been used in unique domestic applications.

Making our textile heritage
The social tradition of quilt making arrived in Australia with the first Europeans. However, Aboriginal people as the original inhabitants of this country, resorted to forms of 'quilt making': keeping warm using animal skins as cloaks or mantles. This simple need to keep warm has fuelled centuries of creative endeavour mostly carried out by women. The presence of these quilts in our collective historical landscape is compelling: we are enriched by their colours, designs and ability to reach many people in a strangely intimate way.

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Hand sewn patchwork quilt in a pattern of squares as diamonds.
NQR ID.130NWM

Where buildings create a tangible reminder of our urban history, quilts are one of the few remaining legacies left of unseen, domestic 'women's work'. Popular trends in handcrafts, changing like fashion, have meant our quilt heritage reads like a photo album: reflecting the life and times of the makers. Different styles in quilt making have evolved in Australia, built on styles from Britain, Europe and North America. The Running Stitch collection is not inclusive of them all, but it is still able to demonstrate the effect they have had on our utilitarian quilt traditions.

Some basic patchwork quilting styles, using grid or block patterns such as 'log cabin', 'central medallion' and 'hexagon' have been adopted in Australian quilts since the late nineteenth century. The fluidity and all-over randomness of 'crazy patchwork' became very popular from that time up until the 1930's. Decorative quilts using these styles indicate the manner in which some women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries spent their time, given limited opportunity for work outside the home.

Conversely, broader life opportunities for modern women have meant they have become 'time poor': juggling conflicting demands to earn an income, raise a family, run a household or pursue an education. Time for handcrafts has been significantly reduced or adopted as a means to an end with little embellishment. The plain patchwork used in domestic waggas suggests that time for sewing had become a necessary part of surviving in times when people were both resource and time poor.

So what is a "wagga"?
The resourcefulness of Australians bred on a diet of harsh uncertainty from drought, fire, flood and war has nurtured a folk heritage of 'making something out of nothing'. Regardless of economic circumstance, everyone recycled, practicing thrift during times of deprivation. In the early twentieth century this was caused by economic depression and world wars and in this environment, the humble utilitarian quilts called "waggas" were born.

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Wagga, made from 2 standard size jute wheat bags.
NQR ID.140NWM

The origin of the word "wagga" may always remain a mystery but it is thought to be derived from the finely woven "Wagga Lily Flour" sacks made by the Murrumbidgee Flour Milling Co-operative in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. However, they were made and known of right across Australia and were given different names such as a 'bluey', 'bush rug', 'wogger', 'Sydney blanket' or a 'Murrumbidgee rug'.

They all seem to share the same construction methods and were made mostly by men living 'on the road' and working in itinerant occupations on the land such as shearing, droving and fencing. Waggas were made of materials commonly found in a shed such as jute wheat bags and wool packs, opened out and stitched together along the seams with twine.

During the 1930's, the domestic burden carried by women was huge. Family survival often depended on women's initiative and skills to clothe and feed the family, furnish the home and literally 'make the bedding'. Women made domestic waggas for use in the home, which could be as simple as wheat or chaff bags stitched together and enclosed within a cotton cover made of simple patchwork. Otherwise, pieces of old clothing or bedding were laid flat and roughly stitched together, sometimes making quite a heavy quilt. Often these waggas or quilts were made with some thought for an aesthetic design, however humble the intent or plain the material.

The art in 'making do'
Recycling is not just a modern day activity based on saving the environment. Last century, thrift was a national activity, necessary in times of financial hardship where the availability of ready-made goods to furnish the home and clothe the family was not as easy as it is today. The global marketplace has provided us with many choices to meet our material needs in a manner we almost take for granted. With more disposable income, we are so used to buying things cheaply and throwing out what is no longer useful. Not so long ago, these things were saved in the 'scraps box' and turned into other useful things when the need arose.

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Patchwork quilt made from pieces of wool suitings, clothing offcuts and blankets.
NQR ID.150NWA

Choices still existed even with limited resources and people took care with their home made quilts to create something that was attractive. Even the simple patchwork quilts, made from suiting sample books obtained from tailors and travelling salesmen, show careful placement of colours to make a balanced design. These quilts and those made from a myriad of other recycled fabrics such as old bedspreads, curtains, clothing and blankets have become more than just a simple bed covering. Their colours, allusions to light, space and movement transcends their everyday function and conveys messages about our collective social history, how time was spent and family relationships.

It is interesting to see how the designs found in these utilitarian quilts of the Depression years can be compared with forms of abstractionism, which developed in modern art in the latter part of the twentieth century. These designs grew unselfconsciously from pragmatic origins and in isolation to modern art using a 'restricted palette' of recycled materials. Abstract pseudo-landscapes appear from the colours of the suiting samples: the pale blues of a broad, hot sky, the deep blues of the sea, the greys of a foggy morning.

Commercially made
The Running Stitch Collection grew to encompass a broad interpretation of bed coverings. It was then appropriate to include a selection of temporary bed coverings, which were not made at home out of scraps but were factory produced and used in situations 'on the road'.

Included for this purpose is one example of a commercially made quilt, with its smart machine stitching and straight edges, which were in stark contrast to the informality of the domestic waggas.

Just like the wheat bag waggas, blankets can become ready-made beds and can serve as impromptu pieces of furniture when seating is unavailable. The travel rug has become an essential part of Australian outdoor life for activities such as picnics, camping and days at the beach.

In times of war the standard issue army blanket served many purposes including warmth, protection and comfort. However, whilst being mass-produced for the war effort, the ubiquitous army blanket has remained in many families as the indispensable 'spare' during peace times.

The Running Stitch Group learned about an innovative approach to temporary shelter for homeless persons and acquired a 'recycled paper sleeping bag' for the collection. This item still fitted in to the collection's ethos of 'making do'. This is fortunate, as the Museum now has one of the few (and possibly the last) remaining examples of this product which was an attempt to provide symptomatic relief to life on the streets.

Contemporary art quilts - what is an 'art quilt'?
To determine what defines an 'art' quilt can be an entirely subjective judgement. With art quilts, the spirit of traditional quilt making is still maintained but developed with a conscious acknowledgment of other factors such as design, colour and the influence of art forms, all within the context of contemporary art making.

When the Running Stitch Collection was given to the National Wool Museum, several members of the Running Stitch Group included examples of their quilts with the donation. Since that time and in the spirit of story telling through quilt making, opportunities have arisen for the Museum to supplement the collection with further examples of contemporary art quilts.

Collecting and exhibiting contemporary art quilts
In 1995, the Running Stitch members proposed to the Museum the idea for a competition and exhibition of contemporary wool quilts. Loosely defining the word 'quilt' so that entrants were not bound by the usual conventions, the concept was very successful. Many high quality entries were received with personal definitions of a quilt that were broadly and imaginatively explored.

Building on this success, the Museum began a commitment to a biennial and acquisitive exhibition called "Expressions: The Wool Quilt Prize". The exhibitions in 2000 and 2002 highlighted the unique qualities and versatility of wool as a medium and encouraged quilt makers to strive for excellence in contemporary wool quilt design. It is currently the only contemporary wool quilt prize of its type in the world and will be hosted again by the National Wool Museum from September 2004.

Jo Foley, Collection Manager National Wool Museum, Geelong, Victoria.

 

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